Friday, August 31, 2007

This is What a Jewish State is For

The upcoming Jewish year will be a Shmita - the seventh year. This is the original "sabbatical", the idea that after working for six years, one should change things in the seventh. Wikipedia gives a reasonably good description here, though you'll note that the article was written, as usual on Wikipedia, by many hands (see if you can count all the different ways the word is spelled!).

Fundamentally the concept deals with agricultural issues (allowing the land to lie fallow for a year), with social ones (it serves as an equalizer), and ecological ones. The agricultural aspects are binding only on Jewish agriculture in the Land of Israel, which means that for centuries prior to the 1880s there was no issue, and then, when agricultural settlement was crucial to the early Zionist movement it was a matter of life and death. The economic aspects (debts are annulled) were evolved almost out of practice well more than 2,000 years ago.

The agricultural issues are a main bone of contention between ultra orthodox (Haredi) and the Zionist orthodox (the Israeli version of Modern Orthodox), as summarized by The Forward here.

Yesterday I went to a conference offered by the Avi Chai Foundation in Jerusalem. The purpose was to look at the subject from many different perspectives. Avi Chai has set itself the mission of bringing together diverse Jewish and Israeli groups, so the speakers came from all directions. There was an assortments of rabbis, there were agronomists and farmers, there were social theorists and social activists, politicians, ecologists, economists and bankers, a high-tech VP, a rising young law professor as well as one of the most prominent lawyers in the country; there was a session limited to journalists (why?) and another with two rocks stars and a novelist. Many of the speakers were religious, and quite a few weren't, and the same seemed to be true of the hundreds of people in the audience.

I had hoped to be able to spend most of the day there - ha! In the end, I only found the time for one session, where five economists presented their thoughts. The first dispatched the entire question of the cost of letting the land lie fallow by noting that given the size of Israel's economy and the relative size of its agricultural section, we could shut down the entire sector every seventh year for the price of half of one percent of VAT. The other four talked about various schemes for creating universal sabbaticals across the entire economy, or otherwise stopping the rat-race.

Learning has always been a central aspect of Jewish life - if not, perhaps, THE center itself. So such a public event really is part of what I wrote in the title above: One of the reasons to have a Jewish state.

PS. If you read Hebrew, you really should go and read Yossie Zruiya's blog here. He's in the process of writing a halachic code of behaviour for a society that really lives with Shmita. Example: what happens with the nature reserves? On the one hand, one goal of the shmita is that people have time to spend in nature, so the parks need to be free that year. On the other hand, the land needs a rest, so the parks should be closed that year. (You'll have to go read how he solves the problem).

1 comment:

Eugene said...

It is ridiculous that Shmita brings huge income to Israeli enemies in Gaza and the Palestinian territories. Whatever are the religious overtones, they cannot excuse purchases from HAMAS voters. What do you think of Obadiah Shoher interpretating Shmita as charity obligation rather than agricultural rule? (Here, for example http://samsonblinded.org/blog/shmita-year-is-about-charity-not-agriculture.htm ) Anyway, I'll better buy from atheist kibbutzim than from Gaza.